Friday, August 28, 2020

Book review: DUNE by Frank Herbert


DUNE (1965) by Frank Herbert

Finally, I've read this novel. I saw the 1984 movie first – a mistake, and I didn't like it.
The book, as the saying goes, was better.

DUNE may superficially seem to be an epic ”space opera” with the hero Paul Atreides fighting villains for the fate of the universe in an imaginative interplanetary setting... but it gets more interesting than that.

The author has created a unique world with its own societies, complex characters and a plot revolving around ecology, anthropology, politics, religion and mysticism.

Paul Atreides is not a typical space opera protagonist – he is more of a tragic figure driven by a fate he didn't choose and struggles to control. The novel is packed with foreshadowing, suggesting that Paul has to accept his destiny rather than master it. Also, the power he gains changes him (and not in a nice way).

Exotic drugs play a central role in the story (unsurprisingly, DUNE was a big hit in the 1960s) – and that's where it wanders off from SF into something more like Fantasy. There are several ”trippy” key scenes , where the characters literally get stoned outside of their minds.

Since this is space opera, it is constrained by the same genre limitations as STAR WARS. If DUNE takes place in a galactic empire, why does it seem so small? How can a few characters control the fate of an entire galaxy? How can they travel faster than light?

Why do they fight with medieval weapons in the far future? Why are the women not more liberated? How does an emperor ”rule” a galaxy anyway? Yet, the whole thing still works.

What I admire most about DUNE is the author's attention to characters, detail and style. Frank Herbert simply wrote better than most of his contemporary genre colleagues (and perhaps better than many known SF authors active today).

For example: When Paul Atreides kills a minor adversary, this death has consequences. The killed adversary is painstakingly buried and paid last respects, and the hero is forced to take care of his widow and her children. (How often do you see that in genre fiction?)

DUNE is required reading for any lover of great ”world building” in SF and Fantasy. It's a genuine classic that has inspired many other, lesser works. It can be a heavy read at the start, as the setting is so densely described and detailed... but it will draw you in.

Thoroughly recommended.

(NOTE: This novel has many sequels, in case you thought the first book ended too abruptly.)

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